My girlfriend and I are invited on an evening of non-stop fiestas by Jorge and Juquila (not their real names).
Guests arrive and unfold the chairs as they are needed, women at the top and men at the bottom next to a large brass band. Although the men wear smart cowboy outfits, they are completely outshone by the women, who are in their most exuberant Isthmus costumes. To me they look uncannily like eccentric characters from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, seemingly unaware they have been magically transported onto a grimy Mexican street.
There are two types of fiestas on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec: Public and Private.
Public fiestas are open for anyone to enter. They were started in the sixteenth century by the Spanish Catholic Church to amalgamate pre-colonial ancestor worship with the Catholic calendar. These days, not all fiestas are dedicated to the Catholic Saints; some are for the community or certain groups like teachers, doctors, fishermen or even muxes (homosexuals). Often the most prestigious moment for a member of the community is to be the sponsor of a public fiesta. The costs, however, can be very high, but necessary if you want to gain social or political prestige within the community.
Private fiestas are usually by invitation, although strictly speaking, anyone can turn up as long as you pay an arranged contribution. They are organised by families or individuals and include: weddings, funerals, baptisms, birthdays etc. The more extravagant the fiesta and the more guests, the more prestigious it is for the individual or family.
NOTE: In order to get people to come to your fiesta in the first place, you need to build up obligation points by showing your face at everyone else’s fiestas. In the case of Jorge and Juquila, whom we are accompanying, they are drumming up obligation points for the church wedding of their daughter, and also for raising the family’s social prestige for Juquila’s new political career.
Our first fiesta is a street wedding (a private fiesta). A large corrugated iron shelter spans the street and is decorated with lots of white paper doilies claiming about forty metres of road. The traffic has to find another way around, but does so without complaint.
At one end, fiesta tables are draped in red cloth and at the other a wooden stage with six piece brass band are setting up. In between are lots of folded wooden chairs and a large square trough filled with ice and beer bottles, next to it is stacked dozens of cardboard boxes of Coronita and Victoria beers.
Before we enter, Juquila slips Jorge 200 pesos (£10) for contribution and beer. Juquila and Katerina then squeeze into the female section of the fiesta, which now looks a little claustrophobic and the women a bit uppity. Meanwhile, Jorge and I swagger down to the more relaxed, but dishevelled seating arrangements of the male section, next to the brass band.
I pay fifty pesos to some old men, down a throat wrenching shot of smoky mescal, and shake hands with about forty men before I am allowed to sit down. A stunted man with thick Mexican moustache hands out polystyrene plates with eight tortillas stacked on it. Under the tortillas is a sloppy meat stew.
“Carne de Iguana,” Jorge says, eagerly folding a tortilla around the soft meat and popping it into his mouth.
My Iguana meat tastes a bit odd, like a cross between fish and beef, but I eat it anyway. Beer is drunk out of miniature bottles (210ml), of which there is an unlimited supply for a gringo guest. The men shout and laugh; kick scabby dogs and insist on continually sharing out more and more bottles of beer. There is a real feeling of macho bonding going on, and a need to keep drinking.
Soon I have a stack of undrunk bottles under my seat, a hairless dog licking my Iguana leftovers, and about twenty Mexicans who all profess to be my friend. My trusty guardian Jorge is nowhere to be seen.
On the women’s side of the fiesta everything is a lot more orderly.
Katerina pays thirty pesos and receives a plastic flower and a shot of sweet wine. Juquila also pays an extra twenty pesos for a plastic bucket.
Looking around, Katerina sees all the other women also have plastic buckets and begins to feel a bit left out. After a few minutes observation, she sees everyone is desperately filling the buckets with food given out by waitresses. It appears to be a race to see who can fill their container first. Savoury specialities include: prawn pastry puffs, chilli cheese toastados, whole crabs in a slimy sauce and various gelletinas, all of which gets piled one on top of the other in the buckets.
“What will you do with all this food?” Katerina asks Juquila interestedly.
“I might eat some, but mostly people give it to their dogs,” she says, and takes another slimy crab and drops it into her bucket.
For a while Juquila gossips to the other women ignoring Katerina completely. Then, when the brass band starts up, gossiping stops, and all the women sit silently clutches their buckets with obstinate expressions of dissatisfaction. It all seems a little bit twisted, like a mad hatter’s tea party. The only enjoyment Katerina gets is when she can dance with some of the oversized women, but even then they keep their arrogant expressions, making it feel more like a waltz with the ‘Queen of Hearts’.
“Why do only women dance?” Katerina asks Juquila curiously.
“This is our tradition, some men will dance later, they have to drink first to gain some courage,” she says, glancing across at the men’s half of the fiesta with a concerned look.
To Katerina, the main difference between the male and female sections is very clear – men have fun, women don’t. As she finishes her first bottle of beer, I am on my tenth.
Finally, the newly wedded couple appear and take their seats at the red tables at the top of the fiesta. They are young and slim, like a different race of people compared to the large Tehuanas they are surrounded by.
“The couple are just seventeen years old,” Juquila says, “this is a Civil Marriage; they will marry in church next year, and may even have a child before then.”
The legal age for a Civil Marriage is fifteen, so for those youngsters keen to tie the knot (or legitimately start their sex life!), it gives the family some time to save up for a larger fiesta and a Church wedding, where the legal age is eighteen.
As part of the fiesta celebrations, Katerina watches the guests stick bank notes onto the bride’s forehead, and place coins in a bowl on her lap. The couple then stands up, while the guests dance around them throwing paper confetti from flowery jugs. When the jugs are empty, they smash them at the couple’s feet. This is apparently to show that everything went well with the virginity test:
The virginity test or ‘defloration rite’ is still very strong in San Blas, despite it being considered an invasive and humiliating act for the bride in other areas of the Isthmus.
Before the wedding, the bride is taken to the groom’s house, where he is supposed to break her hymen with his finger. If the groom for some reason cannot do it, an old woman or a midwife usually takes over; in the past it was even permitted for the groom’s father to step in for his son.
Directly afterwards a white handkerchief with blood is shown to friends and relatives gathered outside. If the couple have already lost their virginity, which was often the case, they could make a pact and use animal blood instead. Grandmothers, however, vehemently claim they can tell the difference between hymen blood and chicken blood.
If the bride passes the test, her dignity and the prestige of her family is safeguarded. But if she does not, her and her family are dishonoured. The blame is mainly placed on the mother for bringing up her daughter incorrectly.
Juquila decides she has shown her face for long enough at this fiesta, so we all have to leave. After several attempts Jorge finally power up his motocaro, and we head off jerkily to the next fiesta. I feel the beer taking affect and cling on tightly to the rails. Katerina updates me with the activities in the women’s half and I feel happy to have experienced the more unruly male side. Juquila look at me worryingly, so to show I can handle my beer, I take one hand off the rails and shout over the noise of the engine: “I’m really enjoying these fiestas, how about you, do you enjoy them?”
“Na… not really,” Juquila shouts back, looking a bit tired, “but we have to go…”
I am informed we have another two fiestas to go to tonight, so should try to take it a bit easier, or I will not last…
To be continued in my next blog post…
Thanks for reading.
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